Ski Myths: Doctor seeks to debunk skiing misconceptions

The "Wide World of Sports" image of a fallen skier tumbling out of control down a ski jump ramp is indelibly etched in the memory of every older alpinist who's stepped into a binding. And today's blizzard of videos of skiers and boarders tackling sick terrain -- and sometimes injuring themselves in the effort -- only amplifies the image.

Against that backdrop comes the November/ December issue of the magazine "Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach." In it, Dr. Robert Johnson, a professor emeritus of orthopedics at the University of Vermont, takes aim at a dozen alpine skiing myths, aiming to debunk them.

"There are many common misperceptions about skiing safety and equipment needs," said Johnson, lead author of the report.

Among them: the assumption that skiing is inherently dangerous and that lessons or overall fitness reduce the risk of injury.

Johnson's team reviewed sports medicine literature concerning 12 of the most common topics related to alpine skiing, concluding "all or at least part of each of the myths could not be substantiated."

Not everyone agrees with all of Johnson's conclusions, particularly his assertion there's no evidence ski lessons decrease the risk of injury.

"Taking lessons is a great way to learn the mountain rules, how to load chairs, how to fall properly so you have a lesser chance of being injured," said Di Hibner, general manager at Alyeska Ski Resort 40 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska.

She also disputes the conclusion there's no evidence exercise and conditioning reduce ski injuries.

"It is very important to maintain a healthy lifestyle," said Hibner, who said she's never been injured in 30 years of skiing ("knock on wood").

"Getting in shape and then maintaining good physical conditioning is extremely important. Work out those muscles you need for balance, like your core. I find yoga and strength training plus cardio four times a week will suit most folks.

"If you are in shape, you will enjoy the sport more -- whether it is telemark skiing, snowboarding or alpine skiing. Plus, I believe it limits your chances of injury."

Over the past three seasons, the Alyeska resort in Alaska has averaged 417 injuries per season, Hibner said. The breakdown:

2006-07: Total of 166,133 skiers and riders suffering 356 injuries -- or 0.21 percent.

2007-08: Total of 168,839 skiers and riders suffering 449 injuries -- or 0.26 percent.

2008-09: Total of 170,888 skiers and riders suffering 445 total injuries -- or 0.26 percent.

"Most of these injuries are minor -- like a muscle strain or a ligament sprain or tear," Hibner said. "We have very few serious injuries."

Two skiers have died on Alyeska in 20 years, the last during a free ski competition on precarious terrain two years ago.

"These types of competitions do have risk when participants are competing, pushing their limits to the extreme and are on very steep slopes (with) exposed rocky areas," Hibner said.

That type of skiing is well beyond the scope of most recreational skiers. Perhaps most important to the ordinary recreational skier is knowing when to quit.

"We have a bewitching hour here on the mountain -- the time when most injuries occur. It is the end of the day and is usually related to being exhausted from a long day of hitting the slopes.

"Knowing when you have had enough for the day can save you."

To deal with the inevitable injuries, Alyeska -- like most resorts -- has a big staff looking out for its customers. It has 25 people on its ski patrol and snow safety staff, plus three patrollers in training and 20 part timers. Buttressing that staff are about 80 volunteer National Ski Patrol members, about 20 of whom show up on weekends or holidays.

They deal with injuries on the hill, patrol slow zones, enforce the mountain rules and handle chair lift evacuation and rope lines. Paid staffers also handle avalanche control work, shooting Howitzers to release potential avalanches.

Injured skiers are taken down the mountain by sled to the resort's aid room. If the injury suggests hospitalization, the fire department is called.

Occasionally, if there is a serious injury, an ambulance will meet ski patrollers at the base of the tram to save time.

Skiers with minor injuries are often referred to a local clinic.

Among the ski patrollers are doctors, nurses, firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and physical therapists.

"It is great to have this depth when it comes to managing injuries on the hill," Hibner said.

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